What do you think about science? It’s a confusingly broad question which is pretty difficult to answer, but luckily the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has had a go by commissioning a survey from Ipsos Mori. The 2011 Public Attitudes to Science survey is the fourth since 2000, and an encouraging 82% of the 2104 respondents agree that ‘science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest’ – hooray!
That would certainly be my attitude to science, but as the main report points out, your opinion of such a huge topic depends on what you already know about it. In fact 51% said that they hear too little information about science, and 65% would like scientists to spend more time discussing the social and ethical implications of their research with the general public. Less encouraging was the news that only 5% of people think that scientists are ‘good at public relations’ (although it did make me laugh). What does the public want? More science communication!
One area where more information is definitely needed is animal research. The survey found that only 36% of people interviewed knew that UK law requires all medicines to be tested on animals before they’re tested in humans. This is worrying because 52% described themselves as ‘informed’ about animal research, but 49% of these ‘informed’ people are unaware of this key fact.
I think this particular topic is a good example of the difficulties of communicating about science. It’s an area where scientists haven’t always been open about their work (for various reasons), and where negative opinions have tended to receive much more publicity than positive ones (GM food and nuclear power are similar areas that spring to mind). For both these reasons, I think scientists and anyone else involved in science need to make more effort to give the public what they want – more information.
Reassuringly the report found that more people thought the benefits of animal research outweighed the risks than believed the opposite (47% versus 28%). But the survey also found that for this topic and GM food, people who felt more informed were more likely to hold extreme opinions – they were ‘more likely than average to think the benefits outweigh the risks and more likely than average to think the risks outweigh the benefits.’
To me this reflects the amount of misleading information on these topics – those animal rights protesters on the high street with pictures of tortured monkeys, or hysterical media commentary on the risks of nuclear power and GM food. You’ll feel more knowledgeable after encountering these messages, but you might in fact have been seriously misinformed.
That’s why it’s so important for scientists to make sure their own messages are heard. It’s no wonder that people are unclear on the laws around animal research when many scientists and research organisations are far from open about their work. Especially in controversial areas, scientists need to shout louder than ever.
Thankfully there are a whole host of ways to get involved in public engagement that don’t involve being ‘the new Brian Cox’. My current favourite is ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’, a way for school students to get to know real scientists, ask them questions, and vote for their favourites. This not only means the students taking part can find out more about science, but also more about what it’s like to be a scientist.
This survey has now been done four times in the UK, and the trends show that public interest in science is increasing. This is great news but the public’s appetite for information needs to be fed in the right way. Openness and honesty is the way to go – I might be a bit naive but I really believe that no-one who has even a small understanding of the wonders and power of science could fail to be inspired by it.